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Most parents don’t feel super great after yelling at their kids.

In fact, no matter how justified the outburst seemed at the moment, it’s more than likely that both the parent and the kid are left feeling terrible afterward.  Research is beginning to indicate that harsh verbal discipline (yelling, shouting, cursing, or hurling insults) may be just as harmful as physical punishment.

Let’s take a look at a few steps that parents can take to improve self-control despite building frustrations.

It’s Not All about Your Kid

  1.     GET ATTUNED TO WHAT YOUR ANGER IS REALLY ABOUT. Anger is almost always a sign of another underlying emotion. If you notice anger rising, ask yourself—what (besides anger) am I feeling? We are most vulnerable to anger outbursts at our children when we are tired, stressed, or hungry. A common misconception is that another person can “cause” us to feel angry—“He made me so mad!”  Let’s be clear: Your mood is your problem.
  2. PRACTICE ROUTINE SELF-CARE.  Parenting is hard work—it’s the toughest job around. Parents can’t be expected to pour out their lives to their children every day without getting filled back up along the way. If you are in a constant state of irritation, this should be a red flag that a change is needed. If you are chronically tired, make a point to get more rest—for the sake of your relationship with your children. If you’ve had a stressful day, give yourself permission to take a few moments to unwind before you respond to your child. Ensure that you have adequate outlets for stress (i.e. exercise, social connections, coping skills, etc.). Re-evaluate how you spend your time and money in order to ensure adequate self-care.
  3. BUILD PATIENCE AROUND INTERRUPTIONS. Children are reliable sources of interruption, starting from birth when they habitually disrupt sleep.  Do you find yourself yelling at your kids more when you are interrupted from a task (even if that task is a game on your phone)? Notice if you’re a person that struggles with transitioning and ask a therapist for help getting desensitized to this common trigger.
  4. ASK WHY THIS ARGUMENT BOTHERS YOU. Be curious about why you were so triggered by your child’s brand of misbehavior. You might be surprised about what is hidden beneath the surface. Did their behavior scare you (i.e. running into the street)? Leave you feeling powerless (i.e. finding out your teenager has been using drugs)? Did you feel hurt (i.e. when they blurt out “I hate you”)? Anger is a much more powerful feeling than hurt, fear, or helplessness, so don’t be surprised if your inclination is to wallow in that feeling rather than allow yourself to experience vulnerability. However, if you’re able to acknowledge the underlying feeling to yourself, you can almost instantly take anger’s edge off.

In-the-Moment Skills that Matter

  1. TUNE IN. Notice anger warning signs before you blow your top. For example, if anger is rated on a 1-10 scale (10 = yelling; 1 = calm), you’ll be more likely to maintain control of your anger if you calm yourself at a 6 than if you wait until your boiling at a 9 or 10.

Here are some signals to watch for—Pay attention to the way anger feels in your body (i.e. breathing faster, knots in your stomach, pacing, clammy hands, clenching your jaw, sighing, tightening fists, or a flushed face). Notice how your anger signals change as anger escalates. Anger does not usually move from a 0 to a 10 in mere seconds (despite how it might feel). Most often, stress or anger had been building already, but you weren’t paying attention.

  1. CALM YOUR BODY. Anger (like anxiety) sets off the fight/flight instinct in your body. Deep, diaphragmatic breathing can essentially flip the fight/flight switch back off, leaving you feeling more in control of your emotions. Check out this YouTube video that demonstrates diaphragmatic breathing for anger: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jq7LO_GTzVg.
  1. CALM YOUR MIND WITH “OTHER-PERSON PERSPECTIVE.” Nothing pops the bubble of anger more thoroughly than empathy. Practice empathy by imagining with compassion what it’s like to be the other person. What are the good reasons they’re doing what they’re doing?

For example, if you’re angry at your child for their dereliction of room-cleaning duty, connect empathically by remembering a time that you postponed a less-fun task. Even better, list reasons why—in fact—they should NOT be cleaning their room right now.  For example, your children may not have the same ability to stay focused, on-task, or delay gratification like you do. They may not have the ability to break down a large task into smaller bits and may require help learning organizational skills. Or maybe they have a different priority that has captivated their interest.

  1. STRIKE WHILE THE IRON IS COLD.  Unless a child is in imminent danger, most parenting moments can be put on hold for a few minutes, sometimes even a couple of hours. Commit to returning to the issue as soon as you feel reasonably calm. Younger children need more speedy response times, as their attention spans fade quickly.

If you’d like help coping with irritability or anger management, a therapist at Star Meadow Counseling is available to help.